Getting Tall | Dave Salanitro

Getting Tall

The Best of What We Are Grows from the Ground Up

A year after graduating from the State School of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota in 1897, John Vincent Bailey leased 20 acres of rocky hillside candidly referred to by its owner as the ‘worst piece of land in Washington County.’ Nonetheless determined, J.V. set out to prove his intuition sound and his education worthwhile. He laboriously turned the hard soil until it was suitably accommodating to the muskmelon crop he intended to grow. He ingeniously bought 23,000 used photo negatives from which he built 23,000 individual cold-frame greenhouses for each hill of seed. His labors and inventions forced the vines early, and J.V. was first to market, where his crop earned $3,000—enough money to purchase 80 acres of his own to farm in earnest.

Upon J.V.’s death, Bailey Nurseries, which he incorporated in 1907, was passed down to his two sons, Vincent and Gordon. Together they grew its land holdings manifold. In 1967, when Gordon purchased Vincent’s share in the company, he saw Bailey Nurseries continue to thrive and rank among the largest wholesale nurseries in the nation. Under his guidance the company came to hold acreage in five locations across the country, employing 1,200 full-time and 400 seasonal workers. Gordon frequently said that life had been good to him and he thought it appropriate to give something back, and he did—to the community, the industry, and its educators in ever-increasingly significant ways—making fertile soil for what would become the Gordon & Margaret Bailey Foundation.

Ginny Bailey is three years old. Her world is wobbly and curious, and her interests vary in that she is unsure what she is interested in, which accounts for her perpetually wandering eyes and perambulating small self rarely resolved to settle on any one thing except her mother, Margaret, her father, Gordon, her siblings, her bottle, and a stuffed brown sock given the form of a monkey. Ginny, however, is parsing information, rapidly distributing and cross-referencing and prioritizing with remarkable efficiencies known only to infants whose minds are still uncluttered.

Decades later, when pressed to recall what she can of her formative years. Ginny will tell you that remembrances come randomly, often apropos of nothing. They are dissociative and extremely unwilling to present themselves when bidden; instead they nag at her temples and present themselves at inopportune times when she is otherwise engaged and without pen or paper. She has been anguishing to recall details; they come to her as stills, photographs that she can walk into and take an accounting of the climate, the textures, the smells, and the hues that define a moment past.

Ginny called me from a small store near a cabin where she was vacationing on the Boundary Waters of the United States and Canada, one million acres of untouched boreal forestland, dramatic cliffs, and rock outcroppings formed when the last glacial period dramatically altered the landscape, leaving behind 190,000 acres or 20 percent covered by innumerable lakes and streams. The small outlet was the closest place that offered her both a signal for her cell phone and a chair.

She was at once excited and concerned about something she had recalled. Her concerns were to do with authenticity. She had been fretting about which memories were hers and which were to be credited to others. I said that no story, be it repeated or told from experience, is ever the same story. We hear what is said differently and immediately make the story our own. In a way, to pass on a story is to pass on a legacy, to give a gift with the expectation that you will find some joy in repeating it someday. Much like Ginny Bailey Bartch’s story, the whole of it is about the gift of giving.

To the best of her recollection of any number of days in 1944, this is what Ginny’s three-year-old mind is rapidly processing: the 18 barefooted Mexican nationals who have come to work for them and the memories of her family’s uncommon kindness.1

‘My Uncle Vincent told me this part of the story many years later. He went to pick them up at St. Paul Union Depot, and he saw that they had no shoes on their feet. Can you imagine that? Coming all that way shoeless?’ says Ginny. ‘Eighteen men beckoned here to help in the fields, and no one bothers to provide them with shoes. Uncle Vincent took them to Montgomery Ward and bought them each a sturdy pair. My uncle was a kind man— he would have bought them the shoes no matter— but he was also practical. He would say he did no more than make a wise investment. He could pay to have them look at shovels or to use them, and the smarter answer seemed obvious.’

Ginny says that Margaret cooked for them three meals a day, every day, beginning the day they arrived.

‘I cannot begin to imagine how she did it, my mother. Every morning the first thing you smelled and saw were the stacks of cookies that covered her oversized breadboard. On the counter there was usually a pie, and a cake too, and she baked fresh bread—all this, daily. She fed and cared for our family, kept house, served two sit-down full meals at home to the workers—breakfast and dinner— and packed 18 bagged lunches for them to take to work. Still she found time to sit and visit with whoever might stop by.

The braceros were served their meals by Margaret and her mother, who lived in the guest house. They ate in the summer kitchen, so named because it was used primarily in the summer months, when the weather was temperate. It is important to note that the room was part of the house and not a screened-in porch or annex. Ginny says that it was common for her uncommon mother to move in unconventional ways, but she did so with grace and poise and by her manner set the example. She never worried about what others might think and she saw no reason why those who worked for us should suffer lesser accommodations when equal accommodations were available.

‘I remember that the table was draped in a pale yellow oilcloth and that the walls were the color of sweet butter,’ says Ginny. ‘I remember the contrast of the men and the table and pale yellow room: the men were dark complected, even more so from the sun, and they sat in silhouette in sweet buttery daylight.’

At first the braceros kept very still and quiet, as though their silence might make them seem less conspicuous. When word got back that the food was not spicy enough, Margaret bought hot peppers in bulk. The braceros spread them on everything.

Ginny says, ‘They became more talkative then. They said my mother’s cooking was delicious.’

Ginny was unpacking Bailey history onto her brother’s dining room table. She brought with her three full file boxes and promises for supplemental information as was necessary. The boxes held oversized photo albums and scrapbooks as well as Pendaflex files that contain various papers of multifarious importance; some are loose, some are in envelopes, and some are yellowed and chipping at the edges. Most have been meticulously cataloged and now graciously unbound and offered as my muse and for my entertainment; they are shared like yearbooks with schoolgirl pride.

‘This is Joe and me out by the well. Do you see this, Joe?’

Ginny is pulling out a black-and-white print from behind its plastic sheath while she pans the room looking for her brother. Ginny is 7 years Joe’s senior; in the snapshot she towers over him. Rod, Gordie, and Mary are the three other the Bailey siblings. Ginny takes a second look at the photo and returns it to the album.

‘Oh, I was a skinny, freckled child who wore black horn-rimmed glasses and braces,’ she says. ‘I was a tomboy. I didn’t care much. Joe was cute, always happy, a little flaky, a dreamer. He did throw up every morning before school though. He used to throw up right into his Cheerios.’ She smiles and offers a minor redaction. ‘Well, not every morning but frequently.’

‘Ginny is a sentimentalist,’ says Joe. ‘She’s our family historian. Walking into her house is like walking back in time—it’s all nostalgia with pictures of my parents and all of us when we were kids. I’m just the opposite: I’m not sure there’s a picture of my parents out anywhere here, just art, things I’ve collected.’

Joe Bailey is the youngest of the brood. He is a licensed psychologist and an author. From 2007 to 2012, he presided over the foundation as president. Now that he, like Ginny, is a director, they do their best to keep things on track, to instill respect for their forebears’ wishes in a new generation of Baileys as they prepare to take charge.

Ginny’s gaze wanders the room as she considers what she wants to say. Her eyes are rimmed a dark blue and radiate copper from the retina. When she focuses on you, the copper sparks and she allows you her still shy smile, a vestige of her youth. It is clear that she has spent some time thinking about this particular topic in consideration of the changing of the guard and with regard to our conversation today.

‘I want to be clear that being a board member is not about how I feel,’ she says. ‘It’s about how Gordon and Margaret feel. It’s important to understand how much my parents trusted us and the generations that follow to go on living for them, to care for their legacy as instructed, and to manage and preserve it as they intended. What I mean to say is it is not about the foundation in terms of the people who sit on the board; it’s about Gordon and Margaret Bailey and how they inhabit their legacy and the board members not as interpreters but as stewards of that legacy.’

The foundation works quietly, under the radar. It has no web presence. It has no mission statement, which many would hold to its credit. It accepts no outside donations but instead operates on a yearly draw from a well-nurtured nest egg, thus ensuring the foundation’s longevity and autonomy. I want to know two things. I want to know how this seeming lack of structure fits such a tall and enigmatic order as to implement its founders’ wishes literally and in their absence, and I want to know what change Margaret and Gordon believed they could reasonably effect by structuring the foundation as such.

Ginny and Joe toss glances back and forth, volleying the questions.

‘My parents gave differently, and they complemented each other,’ says Joe. ‘To understand that, you would have to know a bit about how they came up. My mother’s brother was a priest and her sister was a nun; both were very active in missions in Latin America, and my mother, maybe feeling a little guilty for not taking up the Cross, gave abundantly to all who solicited her. Door to door or by mail, your charity could expect to be recognized by Margaret Bailey. My father gave very generously and covertly. To this day I’m sure there are tens of thousands of dollars in gifts that Gordon gave that made a difference in many lives. My father liked to help people thrive.’2

‘Not to make too little, or too much, of it,’ says Joe, ‘but they wanted to make the world a better place. They meant to better the world, and they saw a practical and possible way to do that. To Margaret and Gordon’s way of seeing it and in their everyday experiences, changing the world was not such a tall order. It was something we saw them do every day.’

The beauty in the logic was that it was so simple and that it was not even something new, so it was a little sad to be reminded that so few practiced changing the world as part of their everyday routines. It’s a matter of reversing your learned response, of first thinking, yes, not no, and then it’s as simple as pausing, breathing, and doing what you can. This is what I took away from Margaret and Gordon. This was something possible and practicable that I could incorporate into my everyday life, and I very much liked the idea of changing the world.

There is no question with regard to how the foundation is meant to be managed; the Baileys left detailed instructions in their wills. And yet there are no written guidelines for whom the foundation should benefit.

‘They left us to do what seems right.’ says Ginny. ‘We take our direction from what we saw, from our parent’s example, not from what anyone told us. I think they trusted us to follow their lead.’

Joe says, ‘I think they had enough confidence in themselves as parents that they ultimately trusted our ability to make choices that they would have made themselves.’

Ginny and Joe frequently echo the advice Gordon repeatedly offered as a parent. He would say, ‘Do what you think is best.’ Both say it is the only piece of advice they recall him ever giving.

Ginny says, ‘He would wait you out. He expected us to work a thing out for ourselves. He’d listen and say, ‘Do what you think is best.’ Maybe this was his way of saying yes.’

I ask if endowing the foundation was cause for family strife and both answered admittedly in the negative. They say that they respect their parents’ decision and they are affirmed by their trust. They say, ‘They left us a great gift: an example and the means for giving.’3

‘Some of our beneficiaries have been constants 4 since before the foundation was first endowed. Because we are reverting to our original practice of seeking out beneficiaries (as opposed to opening up the foundation to applicants for funding, a practice that we tried for a time), as change occurs over time we may not continue to gift an institution that has become overendowed but rather provide assistance to an underendowed organization that holds to the same values,’ says Joe. ‘I think that my parents would have considered that sound wisdom.’

Gordon & Margaret Bailey Foundation is, by design, Gordon and Margaret Bailey reincarnate. The foundation lives and thrives on their values. Moreover, when values are called into question, there no guesswork necessary to intuit what the foundation’s founders would have wanted; there is only thoughtfulness and years of their values exemplified. Which is to say that in order to understand the foundation, you would have to understand Gordon and Margaret Bailey. The homework is a rather joyous pursuit.

Most defining among the values the elder Baileys exemplified to their children is he nature of their affection for one another.

Ginny is telling me that Margaret and Gordon played gin rummy every night without exception. When they were expected to attend some function, they dashed out a hand before they left the house; if the gaming was too good to pull either away so quickly, they poured two fingers of Canadian Club topped off with soda and dealt more cards. Occasionally, Gordon found time in the middle of his day to come by the house and engage Margaret in a few hands and return before anyone at the nursery knew he had gone missing. They played to win. Not for spoils but for the title — the privilege of lording it over the other. The game was blood sport. She’d kick him under the table if he took a card she wanted or dealt her a losing hand. ‘That’s the dog’s breakfast,’ she would say. Gordon liked a Canadian Club and soda when he arrived home, and Margaret did not mind one herself while she was making dinner. They had a second while they battled over gin rummy and then religiously kept it in check for the rest of the evening. It was the same every night, unwaveringly: the same scorecard noting the last score of the last game played, the first 20 cards off the top of the deck, the aggressive hard toe of the shoe on the foot of the leg crossed over the right knee pendulous and foreboding, the CC and soda, the curses, the injuries to Gordon’s shins, and the fits of laughter that those deeply and privately in love indulge in only when behind closed doors.

Ginny lay on her stomach next to the horrible green chair that her father loved for practical reasons and watched this incomprehensible vaudeville of barbs and bad manners play out until she was sent to bed. Still she could hear the fracas below, and this was how she fell asleep most nights, listening to the dark humor her parents batted back and forth — all for a number on a sheet of paper and bragging rights.

Ginny says that neither Gordon nor Margaret ever passed near one another without reaching out and touching. The private moments — Margaret straightening his lapel and his tie, Margaret combing his hair. She did these things as a matter of course. He did not require the attention, nor did he seem to mind. Even after they found the cancer, he required very little of others, his friends and family, his children — only of Margaret, who combed his hair, only she, only the love between them. The tenderness, the affection, the banter, the games, the practical jokes,5 the day he drove home in the brand-new bright red Lincoln Continental, and the occasional extravagance of yet another mink coat wrapped and waiting for Margaret at the foot of the bed. Ginny counts herself lucky to have seen it from all sides.

Among upper-Midwestern horticulturists, Gordon Bailey’s name was more than familiar­­ — it was iconic. His accomplishments were more than simply admired — they were studied by peers and horticulture students; he and the Bailey family envisioned the industry as exemplified by his innovations. Ken Law, a onetime competitor and now a customer of Bailey Nurseries did, as did many others, take the time to write and voice his admiration and extend his thanks to Gordon for his goodwill and his endowment of the Bailey Chair at the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture.6,7

Maurice Munger’s correspondence also concerns the Baileys’ endowment to the University of Minnesota.

Margaret and Gordon also gave generously the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The arboretum was established in 1958. It is the brainchild and grassroots effort of the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center. The site comprises more than 1,100 acres of gardens and trees, prairie and woods. Today it is part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences where students research existing and develop unique breeds.

Asked speak, Gordon echoed what he had said so many times before, ‘The nursery business has been good to us, and we thought our gift might help the university,’ he said. And although the words we not original, they were heartfelt.

In 1929, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Gordon became the first road salesman for Bailey Nurseries. He frequently traveled the Grand Trunk Mainline from St. Louis to major cities north. He prolifically wrote to Margaret (then Miss Fritz) from the road, the tenor of his prose gleeful and smitten and sometimes achingly lonesome for her company.

Later in life Ginny and Gordon would occasionally correspond by post. This from Ginny in 1970: ‘Before I begin my day today, I want to tell how very proud I am of you. I always have been, every day of my life…Thank you for showing me the qualities of warmth, compassion, generosity, humbleness, integrity, and love.’

I ask Ginny how she is faring on the other end of the line. She says she is freezing, but she has one other story and that it’s probably silly, but she wants to tell me anyway because it means so much to her.

‘I remember this clearly: It was a lovely summer day in July. I was sitting on the lawn in the front yard of Gary’s and my first home. It’s something of a renovated chicken coop, but when the wind comes up it brings with it the smell of cut grass from the fields, and I’m so grateful that it is mine and that it remains so to this day.

‘Gary and I were married a month, and we had just received our first bank statement. My dad was driving down the dirt road in front of our house on his way to Harold Field, one of his farms. He saw me sitting there and pulled in. He got out of the car and slowly walked over. It was quite shocking for me to see him do something like this spontaneously, as I don’t think he would ever have stopped by normally, especially without my mother. I told him I didn’t know how to read a bank statement or balance our checkbook. He sat right down on the grass next to me and methodically went through the process. It was such a simple and sweet act. I know this may seem small, but here was my dad taking time out of his busy day, sitting on the grass and teaching me how to balance a checkbook as if he had all the time in the world. This was so out of character for him, this demonstration of love, kindness, and respect. I believe he planted a seed that day. The kindness and patience he exhibited, this small gesture, I think of him every time.’

She tells me the details have come back to her: Margaret straightening his lapels and his tie, Margaret combing his hair. She does these things as a matter of course. He does not require the attention, but he accepts it and is grateful for it. Even after they find the cancer, he requires very little of friends and family—only of Margaret. It is Margaret who combs his hair, only she. The tenderness, the affection, the banter, the games, the practical jokes, the day he drove home in the brand-new bright red Lincoln Continental, and the occasional extravagance of yet another mink coat wrapped and waiting for her at the foot of the bed. The love between them. Ginny counts herself lucky to have seen it from all sides.

Gordon died in 1995, three months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Several years after that the Bailey home was burglarized, and Margaret was frightened to be alone. Family members spent the night with her in shifts. Most lived close by and checked in regularly. Ginny traveled weekly from Fall Creek to spend the night. She spent ten years of Tuesdays at Margaret’s side, listening to her soft breathing, and worrying over her occasional aphasias

The night Margaret died: Ginny came by to visit; a hired nurse was to stay with Margaret that evening. Ginny’s siblings had come and gone, and Margaret seemed fatigued. They talked for what might have been a half hour or what might have easily been an hour or more, their conversation wandered outside the confines of time. Ginny got up to leave, and Margaret embraced her. Margaret held on tight. She seemed not to want to let go. She held her daughter fast in her arms as though they might stand like this forever, close, so she would remember with clarity and certitude what it felt like to have her mother embrace her this way. She held her daughter so that she could love her for as many moments as she could manage before finally letting go because to do so would be to let go for the last time. And so it did happen that Margaret Bailey died that night quietly in her sleep.

‘I like to think that she was dreaming when she passed,’ says Ginny. ‘I like to think of my mother combing my father’s hair. Only her, stroking his hair, a private thing reserved for people privately and deeply in love.’

1    In 1942 the United States initiated the Bracero Program to recruit temporary agricultural labor from Mexico to offset labor shortages during and after World War II. From 1942 to 1947, about 220,000 braceros were granted entry to the United States, many to Minnesota to work its fields. During the 22-year period (1942–1964) that the program was in effect, an estimated 4.6 million Mexican workers had entered the country. Thereafter, the rail, agricultural, and other laborious jobs were returned to their original holders making jobs for braceros scarce; 1,075,168 Mexicans were deported in 1954. The program was quietly shut down in 1964, leaving 16,350 undocumented former braceros spread across the states.

In 2007 a woman named Cathy McCarthy, who worked at the nursery, stood up at Gordon’s funeral and told his mourners how she had approaching Gordon more than two decades prior. She had been destitute. She had exhausted her options and had no way to pay her debts, and feed, clothe, and house her family. She came to Gordon and asked for a sizable loan — sizable even by today’s standards. Gordon gave her the money, saying she need not pay him back. She said it was the single most gracious thing a person had ever done for her, and it turned her life around.

In 1967 Margaret and Gordon initiated a program that would eventually deeded 160 acres of Washington County land for a zoological park to the Minnesota Zoological Society.

4    Among the foundation’s longtime beneficiaries are the local community broadly, and its poor and under-recognized. It gives to Catholic Charities, Little Sisters of the Poor, the University of Minnesota (student grants, in particular to the school of agronomy), its arboretum, and education and research across entities in the areas of horticulture and medicine, among many others.

As children Gordon and his sister used to raise and sell skunks as pets. They had something like 20 animals at any given time, and they had to remove the scent sacs to make them salable. And as Halloween approached and the question of who among the boys in the neighborhood would pull off the best prank, Gordon was confident that so long as a skunk played a roll, he could not help but come out on top. On the evening of October 31, Gordon, armed with an intact scent sac and a pair of his mother’s tweezers, ventured into the night.

Regarding the now-legendary morning of November 1, 1921, at Newport Municipal Bank, when Mr. Samuels who was a kind and gentle man and who was fair with his customers and always willing to help whenever he could, inserted his key into the front door latch, the awful, unmistakable smell of skunk rose up and bit him on the nose like a cicada in June. His first thought was to bend down and examine the latch, which turned out to be very unwise. He was an extremely curious man and could not for the life of him figure out how a skunk made its way through the keyhole, which was certainly no larger than one inch tall and maybe one-quarter inch wide on the narrow and only slightly larger where it rounded off at the top. Mr. Samuels had seen mice crawl beneath doors flat as a flapjack, but their height was displaced in girth, and they became small cylindrical creatures if only long enough to disturb your mind and make you want to be rid of them. If they could flatten themselves to such extreme measures, there was no telling what else they were capable of. Skunks could very well have the same capacity. Still, this would have to have been a very small skunk to begin with. The whole situation was a puzzle. Now there are not many who understand the great inconvenience of being sprayed by a skunk. The uniquely unpleasant odor is not easily rid of nor is it possible to deny. A skunk in the latch. His mind had wandered. What to make of a skunk in the latch? A baby skunk. A lost baby skunk, seeking shelter.

Gordon told this story all his life, and every time he told it, he laughed so hard his whole body shook.

In 1980 Margaret and Gordon Bailey established a faculty chair in the College of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, the Bailey family alma mater and an institution to which Gordon felt indebted. They personally endowed the chair with a gift of $1 million. The gift was the first such endowment of its kind in the country. In addition to funding a faculty position in environmental horticulture, it would enable the university to attract more-talented educators, further research, and offer extension programs for students at all levels of study.

In 1980 the Baileys made a lump sum donation of $1 million to the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum, which they continued to support over the years, and which the foundation supports to this day.

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